Drowning In The Prep Hole

The way in which my anxiety turns up and stops me from being the Gamemaster that I want to be has two big elements. Firstly, I get anxious about the session that is just about to arrive; afterwards I get anxious about what just happened.

The worries that surface paralyse me. I stop taking actions that would move me forward and, very soon, I find myself sinking deeper and deeper into what feels like a deep quicksand-filled hole.

Welcome to the prep hole: the place where the things you need to do are sucking you down so quickly that you soon realise you’re drowning in the things you need to do, and you don’t know how to get out.

The answer is to do something.

Doing something is easier said than done, however. This is especially true for the anxious person because, if you’re like me, you are too busy worrying about the game you feel you are failing to run that you never really have any time or energy left over to do anything about it.

What To Do?

The first problem with doing something is the question of what to do. What actions would help you in this situation?

Given the gigantic opportunity costs of any action you take in your hobby, which of the many options would be the best choice? In a world of hobby choice, with thousands of games and supplements, tools and suggestions all floating around this is worse than ever. If I take this action, what else am I missing out on doing instead?

The question I have found most useful has been to ask: “What’s the smallest action you can take that will move you towards being ready for the game?”

With my Mystamyr campaign, I have felt stalled for weeks. The problem (in my head) is that the adventure is too linear, too “railroady”, and I want to offer more meaningful choices to my players in the next session.

What can I do to dig myself out of this prep hole? I’ve been asking myself what would be the smallest tangible action I could take that would make the scenario less linear? My answer was to sit down and sketch out the “railroad” as it exists in my head and annotate it with the key obstacles I have already set up along the way.

By taking this one small action I was able to stop worrying and start doing something. Once I had the sketched out adventure path, I noticed that I had forgotten about the adventure’s end goal. I realised that I could offer more than one way to resolve the situation. I made a list of every way I could think of that the adventurers might choose to resolve things… and then I started thinking about what they would need for those alternative paths to be open.

The process of generating alternatives led to some ideas for new locations, people, and items. Those new elements themselves needed new clues (three each) to allow the players to discover them as options. Before I knew it (in what turned out to be 10 minutes of note-taking), I had generated a whole list of small but meaningful actions for myself as GM. I felt better and more confident. The anxiety began to wane.

The Downward Spiral

While it has been great to begin to move my Mystamyr prep forward, the problem for me is that I don’t (yet) have a regular prep habit. I rely heavily on focused periods of intense effort to carry me through weeks or months of gaming sessions. When I run low on material, I fall back to very simplistic short-hand prep behaviours.

One short-hand I focus on, for example, is building combat scenes. Because combats are simple and eat up session time, they seem attractive as a quick-prep option. But combats are not necessarily meaningful. Forcing players to overcome combat barriers leads me into the railroading trap because any attempt to bypass the combat will expose the lack of anything afterwards… and so I am tempted to force the players to fight. That’s why zombies are a go-to in my games.

The real rub comes after a combat-heavy session when I worry about the fact that I just ran a pointless combat and that I’ve not got anything else prepped. I feel embarrassed and inadequate. Forgetting about or not considering any of the positives of my game causes me to shut down and try to ignore my unhelpful feelings. Waiting until the next session looms… I procrastinate. Nearer the date, I begin to predict how terrible that session will be because I’ve not got anything prepped. You can see the loop.

Building Uplifting Habits

What I need is a prep habit. The only way to build a habit is to take action on a regular schedule. The key is to add a concise gaming prep action taken on a regular basis, prompted in a way that is effective at getting that small action taken. Can I write just one clue? Sketch just one room in the next dungeon? Come up with a quick outline for just one NPC? Just one small action, preferably daily, will hugely change my prep experience.

Somehow I have managed to build a blogging habit. This is a hugely taxing behaviour that I managed to add to my life over the past nine months – posting once a day, six days a week, most of the time. Yes, I sometimes miss a day but usually I do the work. It seems sensible to me to add one small action to my schedule six days a week: “After I post the blog, do one thing off the prep list.”

My current prep list for Mystamyr looks like this:

  1. Write a clue
  2. Add one room to a dungeon map
  3. Add something to an NPC profile
  4. Add something to an item design
  5. Write down a consequence from something that happened last session
  6. Add something small to your world map – a person, place, or thing

I could do those in that order, so that Monday is clue day and Tuesday is dungeon map day. Or I could roll a D6 each day (to take away the decision making effort) and do the thing I rolled. The important thing is that after I post this blog, I do something for my game.

The need is to do small things often. The actions we take accumulate. This gives us momentum. That’s how we get out of the prep hole: building confidence from the actions we take daily.

Game on!

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